J. Hughes is the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a professor at Trinity College Hartford, and author of the book Citizen Cyborg. Here he explains the idea of transhumanism - and its dark side.
The problem with the idea of posthumanity is that the thing it is supposed to be beyond, "humanness," is an imagined community to begin with. So why imagine posthumanity at all?
There will certainly be identities that unite and divide us in the future, and some of them may revolve around the technologies we use to modify our bodies. People who have had nose jobs or vaccinations, or who have pacemakers or prosthetic limbs, may feel some faint abstract solidarity with one another. But few think of themselves as technologically modified transhumans who are transcending humanness. So why do we imagine that our descendants will suddenly feel this desire to declare themselves a new species?
It's as if we were 16th century peasants trying to imagine the 20th century when monarchists will have to confront the scary powers of the "post-monarchists." We are post-monarchists today, but our myriad modern identities and factions have nothing to do with monarchy.
I have contributed to this illusory posthumanity problem. As a transhumanist my comrades and I talk a lot about transhumans and posthumans as if there will be such a break. But I fear that accepting these terms carries a lot of unnecessary baggage that plays into the hands of the "human-racists," those who believe there are clear boundaries that define humanness which must not be transgressed. Some become human-racists because they believe Man was created in imago Dei,in the image of God, and that messing around with our bodies and brains violates a divine plan. But there are also plenty of secular people exercised about defending humans against posthumans.
In 2002, for instance, the liberal bioethicists George Annas and Lori Andrews published "Protecting the endangered human: Toward an international treaty prohibiting cloning and inheritable alterations," in the American Journal of Law & Medicine. They argued for an international treaty to make cloning and germline genetic therapy "crimes against humanity," a call taken up by other would-be defenders of humanness. Annas opined:
The posthuman will come to see us (the garden variety human) as an inferior subspecies without human rights to be enslaved or slaughtered preemptively. It is this potential for genocide based on genetic difference, that I have termed "genetic genocide," that makes species-altering genetic engineering a potential weapon of mass destruction.
What exactly is this human genome that needs such a defense? It can't include the 99% of our genetic code we share with other species. Hopefully it isn't reducible to genes for hairlessness or upright posture or hidden estrus, since I doubt we would deny citizenship to anyone born of humans who lacked these traits. If defending this human genome requires throwing would be genetic enhancers before the Hague we can hopefully figure out which genes in particular are key.
Perhaps if we examine human genetic origins we could pinpoint the key genes that caused us to suddenly mutate into humans. But the paleogenetic record just mucks up the idea of humanness. The publication last week of genetic comparisons of humans and Neandertals revealed that our two "species" were interbreeding as recently as 60,000 years ago. Only Africans appear to have escaped the taint of Neandertal miscegenation.
Today our closest cousins are the great apes, and the human-racists insist that there is a clear shining line between us and them. But that line also erodes daily, as apes are shown to use language, transmit culture, and understand abstract ideas like death and morality. The Great Ape Project campaigns to have human rights extended to apes, to protect them from slavery and torture, on the grounds that they possess all the mental characteristics necessary to possess rights.
In Imagined Communities, a history of the manufacturing of nationalism, Benedict Anderson notes:
...regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship...Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
Isn't it clear that human-racism, like racism, is just another effort to suppress the divisions between haves and have-nots in favor of a fictional solidarity of humans against illegal immigrants who haven't even arrived yet, and when they do will be us and our children? When Francis Fukuyama argued in Our Posthuman Future that genetic drift would destroy the biological equality that human rights were based on he was invoking a fictional history in which we granted one another rights simply because we recognized some biological commonality that allowed "every human being to potentially communicate with and enter into a moral relationship with every other human being on the planet." But there are no posthumans proposed by human enhancers, and few imagined in science fiction, who would be unable to communicate and enter into moral relationships. If the imaginary moral community of humanity is flexible enough to expand beyond white male property-owners to all human beings surely it can expand a little further to include gorillas, cyborgs and mutants.
In the coming century we will begin to genetically modify ourselves to escape from disease, disability and death. We will begin ramping up our brains and bodies with designer drugs and nanobots. The fight to ensure universal access to the benefits of these technologies began a long time ago with the fight for universal healthcare and will continue when we are trying to get cheap longevity drugs and brain jacks out to rural villages. I suspect that the unmodified humans of the future won't divide the world into humans and posthumans, but into those who are on the side of wider access to enabling technologies and those who side with corporations and governments to deny that access.
So let's be careful about the idea of posthumanity, even if we are celebrating its advent.
Learn more about J. Hughes on his website, Change Surfer.